Shawn Michaels (Michael Shawn Hickenbottom) was not voted into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame until his fifth year on the ballot.
While it sounds preposterous in 2021 that Michaels faced such adversity from voters, it was a hotly-debated subject given Michaels’ resume as one of the most gifted performers of any generation that was weighed down by being among the most unprofessional.
This past Sunday’s A&E Biography crammed a lot of Michaels’ life and career into its two-hour window through the work of producers Joe Lavine and Anthony Cocuzza.
It’s a documentary that won’t provide too much revelatory information but does provide a great scope of a man that didn’t just have two careers inside the industry, he has also lived two lives. By the end, it’s remarkable that the man is still around to share his story.
Given his role in WWE, it is very much a feel-good story of redemption that typically lends itself to the WWE going further into the darker points of one’s career knowing the outcome provides a collective exhale.
From drug use (mainly cocaine), women, politicking, tantrums, failed drug tests, and thoughts of suicide, the documentary spends time on all these factors that defined Michaels’ life for years. After starting his career in Mid-South in 1984, he was on the fast-track moving to Kansas City and then, to the AWA and on national television with ESPN at age 21.
It was in Kansas City that he first met Marty Jannetty, who was interviewed for the documentary and described the partying scene the two led and quickly gained a negative reputation. In June 1987, they are in-and-out of the WWF within days after a scene at a bar that Michaels downplays the severity of, limited to breaking a glass bottle over his head after being prodded by Jimmy Jack Funk (Jesse Barr).
This is the part where Michaels hits rock bottom as he and Jannetty relocate to Alabama wrestling for Continental with Michaels believing his shot at stardom was over by the age of 22. Michaels spoke of a depressive state he entered where the thoughts of taking his life permeated. This is revisited later in the doc when Paul Levesque shares a chilling story of Michaels suggesting he would have “died a legend” had he took too many pills after his WrestleMania 14 match in 1998.
In 2005, Michaels released his biography with author Aaron Feigenbaum and recounted a lot of the stories handled in the A&E special. In the book, you still had a sense of Michaels’ defensiveness over his portrayal in the media with a lot of excuse-making and cheap shots, mainly aimed at rival Bret Hart going so far as calling Hart a very good wrestler but not a great one. The A&E bio shows a much more mature Michaels that has largely acknowledged his shortcomings and seems more at ease with the differing opinions of his earlier years.
While in front of the camera, the goal is a tangible connection with your audience, behind-the-scenes, it’s a leverage game. In the ‘90s, Michaels was astutely aware of his talents and took his leverage to the brink in a game of ‘who blinks first?’ Once you are successful, it becomes that much tougher to contain someone fully aware of their value and expanding ego. More could have been explored in the working dynamic between Michaels and Vince McMahon, however, the latter was relegated to surface-level recollections that added little as McMahon’s involvement in these specials remains underwhelming.
While easy to condemn Michaels, and there is no shortage of instances for those around him to have ample hatred for the man, the viewer is left sad for this individual’s prior existence. By his admission, pro wrestling was all he had. Unlike others, he had a fine upbringing with a mother and father that supported this wild dream, going so far as securing a $3,000 loan to pay for training. However, the industry became all-consuming and was Michaels’ sole identity.
This is a theme that could have been explored deeper and relatable to many performers especially in the era where you lived your character and became addicted to the business. By and large, today’s generation seems to have a better balance and ability to turn their character off and not allow the wrestling business to consume at the same level it did for those of the past. It was during this part of the documentary that one could sense the similarities between Michaels and his idol, Ric Flair as two men that lived for the pro wrestling lifestyle from bell-to-bell, partying with the guys, and life on the road that took its toll on their personal lives. They became addicted to the lifestyle and didn’t want to flip the switch off.
Michaels and Jannetty received their second chance in the WWF in 1988 and became one of the premier tag teams in the company and industry. The break-up remains one of the best of its kind in WWF history, but the payoff was never maximized due to Jannetty’s own personal issues that scrapped plans on multiple occasions. In his book, Michaels alluded to attempts to make the match for WrestleMania in both 1992 and 1993, which he ended up working against Tito Santana and Tatanka, instead.
It is during the breakout years as a singles performer that the documentary chronicles his increasing unhappiness outside of the ring while continuing a reckless lifestyle. In a notable moment of reflection, Michaels still acknowledges that without living this reckless way of life, he is unsure he could have become the performer he did that required a level of fearlessness. I found that line captivating, honest, and self-aware of a point in his life where the highs and the lows shared a common origin.
If you were dreading the inevitable coverage of the Survivor Series from 1997, the doc spared you a detailed overview of the story while still managing to provide a very basic and somewhat misleading rationale. Many will go to their grave with the belief that Vince McMahon was justified in his actions for fear of his champion showing up on Monday Nitro the next night, or at least having Eric Bischoff proclaim he had signed the competitor’s top star. It doesn’t hold up to the evidence available. In a nutshell, Bret Hart’s window to accept the offer from WCW was on November 1, 1997, with the Survivor Series taking place November 9th. Not only had Bischoff signed off on the idea that Hart could extend and work the December In Your House pay-per-view, but Bischoff had the November 3rd episode of Nitro to perform a double-cross and cut that same promo about Hart coming to WCW, he didn’t – and even after Montreal where one could make a reasoned argument that Hart’s contract was violated by ignoring the creative control clause, he still didn’t appear on WCW programming until December.
It isn’t discussed too prominently but there’s a great ‘what if?’ scenario regarding Montreal if not for Paul Levesque’s influence on Michaels. From all accounts, it was Levesque that was the loudest voice in Michaels’ ear to stand his ground and not acquiesce to Hart.
The other scenario that could have drastically altered history goes back several months to the locker room fight between Hart and Michaels in Hartford that led to Michaels citing an unsafe working environment and disappearing from television. Michaels wanted out of his contract that ran until 2001 at $750,000 per year. At the peak of the wrestling war, McMahon was unlikely to hand Michaels to WCW, but that’s what McMahon essentially did when he informed Hart of the financial limitations he was operating at and the albatross Hart’s contract had become.
Hart had signed a twenty-year contract was would pay the performer $1.5 million for the first three years and then reduce to $500,000 for the following seven years and $250,000 for the remainder. If McMahon had taken Michaels off the books in the spring that provides a great amount of salary relief and doesn’t make the Hart contract as burdensome as McMahon made it out be. That said, by the time the Survivor Series is going down, the WWF has already felt the relief by escalating the price point of its ‘B’ pay-per-views to $29.95 and creating new revenue without spending anything.
The Michaels, Hart, and McMahon dynamic is a fascinating one. One where Hart and Michaels would see McMahon as boss, mentor, and to a degree, father figure. When push came to shove, McMahon chose Michaels over Hart. The irony being within months of the Survivor Series, Michaels’ career appeared to be over and McMahon had neither at his disposal.
The final months of Michaels’ first run in WWF play like a tragic fall as he was spiraling out of control and comes off reminiscent of where Brian Pillman was throughout 1997.
Seeing the Michaels and Pillman stories play out in their respective documentaries, does put a spotlight on the environment fostered in the WWF and the leash that Michaels had compared to Pillman. It was the decision by the company to drug test Pillman that set his relationship with Jim Ross into a tailspin with Pillman citing a double standard. While WWF was right to test Pillman, he was justified in calling out the obvious that Michaels was showing the same warning signs.
The transfer of power between Michaels and Steve Austin was a rocky one culminating in the WrestleMania 14 main event with Austin winning and Mike Tyson making the three-count. One aspect that infuriated Michaels was the added insult of Tyson placing an ‘Austin 3:16’ shirt over Michaels that he felt was disrespectful. This led to Michaels’ final confrontation as he crashed the press conference after the show that Austin recalled being ‘selfish and stupid’. To see the footage of the incident brought a real-life metaphor to the screen where Austin is in command of the room while the outgoing Michaels is causing a scene to disrupt.
While this period sent Michaels into another tailspin without wrestling as his outlet, it was the best for the company to get on track and take off like wildfire without the needless drama. On a personal level, Michaels was broken down requiring back fusion surgery in January of 1999 while still being paid by WWF for the remaining two years of his contract.
He hit a further low in early 2001, appearing at a WWF taping in no condition to perform that descends to a falling out between Michaels and Levesque as the two ceased communication for the next year.
By this point, Michaels and his wife Rebecca have welcomed their son Cameron into the world and forced Michaels to confront his addiction as he continues to spiral. His outlet was religion and to his credit, hit his version of rock bottom and quit cold turkey. There are few demarcation points as deep as the one Michaels’ life represents during this era going from an out-of-control pill addict to the version we see today. In many ways, it is among the best success stories in an industry that has way more tragedies than redemptions.
Having successfully kicked his habits, it made it that much more interesting to see Michaels return to the industry that brought out the worst in him personally while fulfilling himself artistically. The second act of his career was a search to reap the rewards of his God-given talents while refusing the substances he acknowledged helped to fuel that success.
For modern fans, the 2002-10 period may be superior to the first half, or at the least, there is a debate that holds up strongest. We had glimpses of the old Michaels such as his “performance” with Hulk Hogan at SummerSlam 2005 that is either interpreted as a man having a match by himself to an entertaining degree or completely unprofessional for such a big match on a live pay-per-view. But that was greatly outweighed by his pay-per-view performances, several WrestleMania classics including the Flair retirement, a feud with Chris Jericho in 2008, and his own send-off in 2010 that will endear him to this generation as an all-time performer that helped erase the low points of his younger days.
To understand Shawn Michaels is to dissect the best and worst this industry represents with the feel-good ending of a man that appears to have taken hold of his life and is the one in control. He has not shied away from his countless faults, which often makes for a compelling subject and a sympathetic figure to its audience.
Perhaps the most revealing insight into who Shawn Michaels has become is the reaction to the “forgotten” return match in Saudi Arabia teaming with Triple H against The Undertaker & Kane. There is a scene during the post-match where Michaels notes to Levesque, “We’re too old for this”.
When you contrast to The Undertaker’s endless battle to walk away on a high note, the fact Michaels could react in that way and have no reservations about ‘one more match’, shows a man at peace with his legacy that no longer lives and dies by an industry that is now part of his life, not all of his life.